For Neil, Apollo Was the First Step in Humanity’s Cosmic Migration

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For Neil, Apollo Was the First Step in Humanity’s Cosmic Migration

Once, over lunch, I asked him to compare the moon landings to another event in human history. I thought, being an engineer, he would cite an invention — the wheel, the compass, the steam engine, the transistor. But, as happened so often, his quick answer surprised me: “the Austronesian expansion.”

He had just read Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, which offers a bold and sweeping explanation of why Eurasian and North African civilizations survived and conquered others, due to geographical and environmental advantages rather than intellectual, moral or genetic superiorities. It was clear Armstrong admired the thesis, but he was focused on one chapter in particular: “Speedboat to Polynesia.”

Archaeologists have found that groups of people were leaving Asia by boat tens of thousands of years ago, and by 5000 B.C., these immigrants had established a potent and versatile culture on the island of Taiwan (also once known as Formosa), combining fishing, gardening and a little farming.

But their migration was hardly over, Armstrong explained. Around 2500 B.C., having mastered ocean navigation by plying the water between Taiwan and the coast of Asia, these enterprising, seagoing people — the Austronesians — spread out into the Philippine islands. From there, they ventured even farther into the vast Pacific, which covers about one-third of Earth’s entire surface. The Pacific islands the Austronesians came to settle — eventually all the way to Hawaii and Easter Island — are like grains of sand scattered across a vast blue void. To think that a people could navigate the Pacific well enough to settle and establish culture on islands separated by so much ocean is truly extraordinary, Armstrong said. Yet somehow early humans managed to reach them all.

I asked Neil if he saw the Austronesian expansion as a forerunner for how humankind will become a true spacefaring civilization.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “We have learned how to navigate to the moon. That is like the ancient Chinese mainlanders learning how to get to Formosa; Formosa is the moon. After we settle it, we jump off from there to Mars, just like they went next to the Philippines. And from there, all across our vast galaxy. If the Austronesians can sail in their boats and scatter into settlements all across Oceania, we can take our spacecraft and scatter and settle all across the Milky Way.

“It may take even longer than it took the Austronesians, but if they did it, so can we,” he said. “Because they are us.”

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